Review by Paul Broome
Well, this is slightly disappointing.
Mark Lanegan has been one of the most consistent performers to emerge from the American alt-rock scene of the mid to late-1980s. His band Screaming Trees were one of the most influential of their time, foreshadowing the whole grunge movement. His contribution to Queens of the Stone Age (on Rated R, Songs for the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze) arguably served to push Josh Homme’s outfit to the next level. His work with former Belle & Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell exposed a whole new side to his vocal talent, and his collaborations with Greg Dulli under the moniker The Gutter Twins were simply astounding.
For this, his eighth solo album (following hot on the heels of 2012’s excellent Blues Funeral), Lanegan has chosen to record a dozen covers arranged simply with minimal acoustic and orchestral instrumentation, and uniformly reflective and low-tempo. Some of the choices are surprising (‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Pretty Colors’, ‘Mack the Knife’), but unfortunately the arrangements are anything but.
On my first listen through I was distinctly unimpressed, and while subsequent listens have revealed hidden corners and added appeal it’s hard to really recommend this collection. Yes, his voice sounds rich, sonorous and more like velvet than ever – but it’s those rough edges I miss. This is just too polished.
There are also a few tracks that actually make me cringe. The cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Brompton Oratory’ (which I was looking forward to hearing, being a huge Cave fan) is little more than a paint-by-numbers replica (with added, and totally unnecessary, trumpet) yet totally lacks the pathos of the original. The lowest point however comes with ‘Elégie Funèbre’ which is sung entirely in the native French (an admirable thing to attempt, you would think) but in a GCSE-grade accent so bad that I can only skip the whole thing (I’m sure an English translation would have worked better).
Okay so maybe I’m being over-harsh. There are some truly appealing performances, ‘Flatlands’, ‘Deepest Shade’, ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘I’m Not the Loving Kind’ are all spell-binding. Indeed, in small doses most of these tracks are lovely, and maybe releasing a couple of EPs would have been the way to go. But a dozen tracks of similar tempo, palette, and contemplative nature is just too wearing… I just find myself craving a bit of raw emotion. Even the jaunty ‘Mack the Knife’ is drained of all life in its solo acoustic guitar arrangement. Lanegan has shown that he can handle low-key emotional ballads – especially in his work with Campbell, but also on his previous album of covers I’ll Take Care Of You (released back in 1999 on Sub Pop) – but the production on this album is just too… syrupy and anaemic.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point and this is all a big plan to open him up to the massive Radio 2 audience. If so, it could well work. My advice to fans of his past efforts, buy this – by all means – but don’t listen in a single sitting. Don’t gorge yourself on its syrup – that way, aural diabetes lays.
6 out of 10
- She’s Gone
- Deepest Shade
- You Only Live Twice
- Pretty Colors
- Brompton Oratory
- Mack the Knife
- I’m Not the Loving Kind
- Lonely Street
- Elégie Funèbre
- Autumn Leaves